Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:27 pm on 29th April 2004.

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Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister (International Development), International Development 4:27 pm, 29th April 2004

I take my hon. Friend's point. There can be no excuse for the wall or fence—however people refer to it—having been built where it has been built, separating pupils from schools, farmers from fields, and villagers from their hospitals. It is an outrage. As long as that barrier exists, it adds to the problem; it does not take away from it.

There is no excuse for suicide bombings, and at the same time there is no excuse for targeted assassinations. Both are illegal under international law and the Palestinian Authority have to take a greater hand in trying to prevent the suicide bombings. As the Committee found, the authority should, as a first step, condemn the bombings much more strongly. At the same time, investment in and development of the Palestinian Authority security forces needs to be made a priority. Israel has to recognise that that will serve its interests, while donors such as the UK should see it as a key part of technical assistance. Israel has no excuse for building the wall on Palestinian land, breaking up and closing in Palestinian communities, and there is no excuse for the US Administration to be anything other than critical of that move.

It is important that the Department for International Development should respond not just to short-term humanitarian needs, but help countries to develop in the long term by solving their long-term problems—that normally means helping countries to help themselves. In places such as Ethiopia, aid is about the provision of food in the short term, while making the country less vulnerable to freak climates in the long term. In Malawi, it is about treating those suffering from HIV in the short term while preventing the spread of disease in the long term. In Palestine, we need to avert the humanitarian disaster that threatens while pursuing as a long-term solution an end to the violence that has plagued the region for so long.

As Tony Baldry said, for Palestine it is not, as in some other countries, just about aid. The Committee found that merely increasing aid spending would decrease poverty by about 7 per cent., but tackling the cause of poverty—ending movement restrictions—would result in a reduction of 15 per cent. This is not a problem that needs to have money thrown at it. Although there is, of course, a need for continued spending, it needs much more. As others have said, the wall and the movement restrictions are causing immense problems. Palestine is not a country with food shortages, yet the Committee found rates of malnutrition as bad as those in sub-Saharan Africa. Between the movement restrictions and the confiscation of land, farmers are unable to provide the food that their people need. Surely the movement of food cannot be described as a security threat. The Committee found that, provided no weapons are being transported, there is no need for the additional restrictions on the movement of food.

There are still water access requirements and, if my hon. Friend Dr. Tonge catches your eye, Mr. Chidgey, she will go into the detail of that. The Committee found that DFID and non-governmental organisations were undertaking excellent work in helping to improve water access. However, the violence in the region often results in the demolition of infrastructure. One example cited in the report was the destruction by the Israeli army of US-built wells. There is no point in the UK, the EU and other donors investing in infrastructure improvements if they are to be undermined by authorised acts of violence.

The other issue that struck me during the inquiry was the importance of education. As has been said, half the population of the occupied Palestinian territories are under 18. That makes it even more important to provide good educational facilities, but in this case too the restrictions imposed by the Israelis are causing considerable, potentially permanent damage. The Palestinian Ministry of Education reports that almost 1,300 schools have been closed because of curfews, seizures and the fact that some of them have been converted into detention centres. A further 280 schools have been damaged by military action. Of those that remain, restrictions on movement and fear of retribution mean that teachers are unable to teach and that they and pupils are unable to reach their classrooms. Charities such as Save the Children report an increased use of violence in the playground as a means of settling disputes. If we are ever to find a long-term solution to the mistrust between the two sides, we must ensure that the next generation of leaders are not burdened by ignorance. Allowing children in Palestine to go through their entire childhood without proper education is contrary to that.

The only long-term solution to Palestine's development needs is peace. It is safe to say that despite the result of the Commons vote on 18 March 2003, the majority of Members were sceptical about military action in Iraq. One reason that some went through the Aye Lobby was the commitment that the Israel– Palestine conflict would be given priority and that the road map would be implemented. President Bush's endorsement of Sharon's disengagement plan and his partisan comments since run contrary not only to that commitment, but to international law and UN resolutions.

The interjection of 52 former British diplomats on Monday was a timely reminder of the work that still has to be done. Even those who disagree with the content of the letter must accept that those who signed it were some of the most expert people in Britain on the middle east. Their comments should not be dismissed out of hand but should be considered carefully and thoughtfully, just like the Committee's report.